Karen Karbiener

Professor Karbiener teaches at New York University and has led special courses on the legacy of Walt Whitman in New York City at Columbia University. A scholar of Romanticism and radical cultural legacies, she is the general editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Counterculture. She is currently curating an exhibit for the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass, entitled Walt Whitman and the Promise of America, 1855-2005. She lives in her hometown New York City.


In 1890, Thomas Alva Edison used his latest invention, the phonograph, to record Walt Whitman reading four verses of his great poem "America". On this recording, the aged Whitman summoned his failing energy to project into history a grand vision of the country he'd loved and celebrated in his poetry and his life.

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons

All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair'd in the adamant of Time.

Though Whitman was to die a year later, his voice, like his poetry, would live on, both in the cylinders of Edison's phonograph and in the hearts of every American poet and lover of poetry who came after him. For it was Whitman, according to Karen Karbeiner, who determined what the American poet and American poetry would be. His vision of America informed his verse, exemplifying the best virtues and highest ideals of the country whose birth predated his own by only thirty years.

In this course, Walt Whitman and the Birth of Modern American Poetry, we'll explore how Walt Whitman broke with the tyranny of European literary forms to establish a broad, new voice for American poetry. By throwing aside the stolid conventions and cliched meters of old Europe, Walt Whitman produced a vital, compelling form of verse, one expressive of the nature of his new world and its undiscovered countries, both physical and spiritual, intimate and gloriously public. Passionate democracy is what Whitman called his invention, and like the inventions of Edison, it would transform not only the practices of its field but also the larger dimensions of American life. Whitman named what it was to be American, he catalogued and indexed and sang and scribed it, and his influence on his contemporaries and his descendants transcends the boundaries of poetry and becomes, in many ways, the story of young America.

Of course, Whitman did not operate in a vacuum. Men like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson had also embarked on the grand project of imagining the scope and promise of the republic. Our course will investigate how Whitman's work tied into so many of the concerns, both philosophic and political, of that generation which took upon its shoulder the task of realizing the responsibilities born of the dreams of the founding fathers.

Walt Whitman's life spans some of the most turbulent days of the new country, from its early years to the Civil War to the invention of electricity. By examining the life of Walt Whitman in the context of broad social and political change, we'll learn why the values we as contemporary Americans prize were often decided and idealized by this period of our history. And, quite frequently, Walt Whitman, and people like Whitman, did the choosing. They crafted our virtues, sang our values, and explained to us what it really meant to be American.

In this course we'll do the same thing. By teaching people what Whitman's poetry means we'll teach them what makes America America. More than just a history of one poet or a study of his work, this course will provide a framework to investigate the cultural formation of the United States—the birth of its spiritual identity. To do so properly, we can't limit ourselves to Whitman. After focusing on his life and work for seven lectures, we'll go on to explore his influences on the poetry and the world that followed. From Hart Crane's "Brooklyn Bridge" to Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, from the Beat Generation to the high modernists, like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and, in the final lectures, to inspired poets of our own age, such as Adrienne Rich and Yusef Kommanyaka, we'll look at the sweep and diversity of Whitman's message. Every American poet who wrote verse of distinction has in some way been responding to the legacy of Walt Whitman. Anybody who wants to understand American poetry has to understand where it came from. And what better place to start than with its father, Walt Whitman?

Lecture 1: "Listener up there!": Whitman Springs Off the Page

Before beginning this lecture you may want to ...

Read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old.

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.

Imagine Whitman in 1891 recording this poem. Edison patented the phonograph in 1878. Whitman himself visited New York's Exhibition Building to see displays of Edison's phonograph and telephone in 1879. And a letter signed by Edison on February 14, 1889 expresses the inventor's interest in obtaining a "phonogram from the poet Whitman."

Consider the way he recites "America." The strong beat of the poem's many monosyllabic words demonstrates that Whitman chose the reading for its sound as well as its meaning. The urgency of his voice increases as he moves from the musical cadence of the first two lines to the solemn grandeur of the next. His pronunciation of "ample" as "example" sounds explosive, and the accent perhaps betrays the Dutch heritage of his family and his beloved city. And the luxurious curl in the word "love" is intimate and inviting. The sensual Whitman can still be heard—even felt—well over 100 years after his physical death.

Finally, think of how pleased and surprised he would be to know that we were listening to the recording!

Words That Last More Than a Lifetime

The amazing thing about Whitman is that people are still listening. In fact, over 100 years after his death, the world hears him louder and clearer than ever before. He speaks out in:

• the works of some of America's greatest poets: Allen Ginsberg ("Howl"), Langston Hughes. ("I, Too, Sing America")

• Amy Tarn's Tripmaster Monkey as "Whitman Ah Sing."

• all over the silver screen, from Sheeler and Strand's "Manhatta" to Robin Williams' character of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.

• the songs of Woody Guthrie, in particular "WW's Niece," revived by Billy Bragg and Wilco.

A Key Figure in a Developing American Culture

Whitman is now considered a foundational figure in American culture.

• Roy Harvey Pearce writes in The Continuity of American Poetry, "All American poetry since Leaves of Grass is, in essence if not in substance, a series of arguments with Whitman."

• Malcolm Cowley: "Before Walt Whitman America barely existed."

• Ezra Pound: "Whitman is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America."

Whitman's name can be found on rest stops, railings of Reagan National Airport and the Fulton Ferry landing, on cigar boxes, whiskey bottles, cans of waxed beans, and in every major language and on every continent.

Though he would have welcomed the attention, Whitman certainly didn't receive it during his lifetime. He wrote his own biography, self-published it and self-reviewed it.

The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it. (Preface)

That I have not gained the acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future—anticipations—that from a worldly and business point of view LoG has been worse than a failure ... That public criticism on the book and myself as author of it yet shows mark'd anger and contempt more than anything else ... is all probably no more than I ought to have expected.

From Working-Class Roots to Cultural Legacy

So how does this working-class man—sometime carpenter, printer and penny-daily hack journalist—become the voice of America? That's one of the questions we'll be answering in this series of lectures. What brought him to poetry and made him stay there?

What makes him such an enduring cultural legacy?

Whitman is America. He is the American success story we all hope for. He represents the best that America can be—the promise of the new democracy.

He came from basic stock and loved his mother. It is thought that Whitman's father was an alcoholic. Whitman worked hard all of his life and volunteered for service in the Civil War. A man driven by his own inner taskmaster, Whitman didn't see material reward, but persevered despite poverty.

Unstopped and unwarped by any influence outside the soul within me, I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record—the value thereof to be decided by time.

And most importantly, he tried to be the spokesperson for the American people—a poet who speaks to and for the American people. He wanted to break down the barrier of the page itself and confront his reader face to face.

Listener up there! Here you ... What have you to confide to me? Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening, Talk honestly, for no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.

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